Victoria’s Save-On-Foods Memorial to become emergency response centre amid COVID-19

Victoria's Save-On-Foods Memorial to become emergency response centre amid COVID-19
WatchThe Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre is going through a transformation tonight. Soon it will house not hockey players or musicians but some of the homeless campers from Topaz Park and Pandora Avenue. Julian Kolsut has this story.

Typically at this time of year, Save-On-Foods Memorial is filled with hockey fans cheering on the hometown Victoria Royals in the WHL playoffs. However, the facility will serve a different purpose in 2020.

The BC Government has announced it will be converting the multipurpose venue into a homeless emergency response centre amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The provincial government said they will be opening a 45-bed response centre with wraparound dividers throughout Save-On-Foods Memorial. These dividers will create ‘pop-up pods’ that provide privacy for the occupant and, according to the government, will be the first site of its kind in BC.

“We see it as a really proactive and innovative way to get a lot of people inside and ensure physical distancing,” said Heidi Hartman of B.C. Housing.

“And they get the foods and supports they need to travel on that journey to wellness.”

The new shelter will accommodate the vulnerable population currently living along Pandora Avenue and in Topaz Park, said the BC Government in a press release.

“This is a challenging time for everyone, especially for people experiencing homelessness. In Victoria, we have seen encampments at Topaz Park and the Pandora corridor grow into unsafe, dense encampments that are compounding existing health, well-being and safety challenges,” said Shane Simpson, Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. “The centre offers a temporary and secure place with wraparound support services to help people stay safe during this time.”

The government anticipates the temporary shelter to open in the coming days, following the final assembly of a staff. The Province revealed that fulfilling staffing requirements for the facility will be through a partnership between BC Housing and PHS Community Services Society. Staff are expected to be onsite at all times.

“As operator we will be providing mental health workers and outreach workers 24 hours a day,” said Avery Taylor of PHS Community Services.

“We will be working with Island health they will have a multitude of services like nursing and harm reduction, we will also be providing some hard reduction.”

GSL Group, the developer and operator of the facility, added in the release that they had been willing to offer up space in their stadium since the outbreak of the pandemic if it was required.

“From the beginning of the crisis, we’ve said we could make our arenas throughout B.C. available for medical purposes if needed,” said Graham Lee, president and CEO of GSL Group.

“We are pleased to support the Province’s effort to provide an emergency response centre and the ongoing efforts from the Province and the City of Victoria to support those in need.”

In addition to the unique private space created by the pods, people will have access to services such as meals, washroom facilities, health-care services, addictions treatment and harm reduction, storage for personal belongings and other supports.

The pop-up pods, provided by Staples Business Advantage, have the ability to be rapidly installed and The Province said it plans to expand their use at other emergency response centres.

A view of the pop-up pods being installed at ice-level in Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre (BC Government)

“We are grateful to GSL for working with BC Housing and the Province to make this facility available to help those in Victoria in need of temporary sheltering, meals or specialized health services,” said Lisa Helps, the City of Victoria’s Mayor. “Moving into the arena in the short term is a step closer for people to have safe, secure long-term housing.”

The project is all part of efforts to relocate all the campers from Pandora Avenue and Topaz park to hotels and others spaces.

But advocates are questioning why the campers are been forced to move by Saturday.

“That was a somewhat understandable but artificial created deadline that puts all sorts of pressures on the system,” said Dr. Anne Nguyen from Victoria Inner City COVID Response.

“I think for B.C. housing, the health authorities, and community service providers to do this well we have to be realistic that this will take the next several days.”

But Minister of Social Development and Poverty Reduction Shane Simpson says the deadline is not a rigid goal.

“We will be doing one-on-one evaluations, we will be looking at what the best opportunities and possibilities are for people,” said Simpson.\

“We will be making offers to people and facilitating their relocation, and that is our priority now and that work will continue in the coming days moving forward including past May the 9th to ensure we give everybody to have a housing option moving forward.”

The centre will open in the coming days.

In addition, BC Housing has partnered with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness to open 12 temporary shelter spaces at a different location.

The goal of this additional 12-occupant space is to provide culturally supportive services to Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness as well.

Between April 25 and May 4, the BC Government said 92 people have been relocated from encampments on Pandora Ave and in Topaz Park to safe, temporary accommodations.

Graham CoxGraham Cox

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